House majority floor leader proposes ethics overhaul

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 | 6:18 p.m. CST; updated 11:07 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A House Republican leader wants to put a stop to the wining and dining of state legislators by lobbyists.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, announced plans Tuesday to file a broad ethics bill. The proposed legislation would put a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists to individual legislators. It would also require former legislators to wait 180 days before becoming lobbyists.

Tilley is not the first legislator to introduce ethics as a topic of debate for the 2010 session.

A bill was pre-filed by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, on the first day of eligibility, Dec. 2; that day, Rep. Paul Levota, D-Jackson County, announced his own plans to file an ethics bill in the House. Monday, bipartisan ethics legislation was officially filed by Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, and Rep. Jason Kander, D-Jackson County. Two additional bills pre-filed in the House propose further restrictions on lobbyists.

Tilley said the abundance of similar bills will improve the odds of ethics legislation passing. According to Tilley, a successful reform bill is more important than combining the existing legislation into one comprehensive package.

"The bigger the bill, the easier it is to kill," Tilley said. "I want something significant to actually make it through the legislative process."

The specifics of Tilley's ethics reform proposals were, to the surprise of some, revealed Monday on a blog facilitated by a teacher and former reporter in southwest Missouri. Tilley said the inspiration to debut his legislation online, as well as for his version of ethics reform, came from his parents.

"The turning point for me was this summer when I was reading blogs about myself," Tilley said.

The blog posts detailed Tilley's interactions with lobbyists. When Tilley showed the reports to his parents, he said, they told him the blogs could give constituents the wrong impression about Tilley.

Larry Rohrbach, a former state senator and current lobbyist for Flotron & McIntosh, became a lobbyist the day after his second term as a legislator expired. Under the new rules being proposed by Tilley, he would have had to wait 180 days to begin lobbying.

According to Rohrbach, a waiting period could lead outgoing legislators to resign before the end of their terms. He said the rule could also mitigate the positive effects of former legislators acting as lobbyists.

"Former legislators provide real information, especially in a term-limited world," Rohrbach said.

In addition, Rohrbach said the restrictions Tilley's bill would place on lobbyists could violate the Constitution. "There's a thing about free speech in the Constitution, and I think that's a good thing."

Tilley said such considerations about legality would come later, after the bill been refined further. "We are at the beginning of the game, not the end," Tilley said. "I don't want to pass anything that won't pass judicial muster."

The nature of lobbying in the state Capitol would change if Tilley's ban on lobbyist-funded gifts and meals to pass.

In 2009, lobbyists spent nearly $300,000 on individual state senators and representatives. Those expenditures included dinners, tickets to sporting events and concerts, and trips abroad.

"I don't think the average person in this state wants their legislator to have steak and lobster dinners all the time or have access to front-row tickets to the Cardinals game," Tilley said.

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